As they return to Westminster from the conference season, there is one point on which MPs agree: Labour was the biggest loser. After the trauma of Mark Reckless’s defection to Ukip, the Tories unexpectedly recovered and fired up their activists with the belief that they can win next May. The Lib Dems put on a typically stoical display and savoured the prospect of again holding the balance of power. Only Labour returns in worse spirits than when it left.
The triumphalism that last year followed Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge has been replaced, in parts, by despair. “I think we can still win but we don’t deserve to,” one MP told me, lamenting the party’s “total failure” to change the terms of economic debate. After Miliband’s botched conference speech and several polls putting the Tories ahead, some are contemplating emergency intervention. “That ludicrous performance was our ‘Sheffield moment’,” one former minister hoping to instal Alan Johnson as leader tells me, recalling Neil Kinnock’s ill-fated 1992 rally. “My worry was that the Sheffield moment would come during the campaign and it would obviously be too late to change then. He’s done us a favour by giving it to us now.” But he concedes that there is little appetite in the Parliamentary Labour Party for regicide seven months before the general election: “They’re all more worried about their careers and what would happen if it failed.”
Miliband will survive, but just at the moment when he would want to be advancing on Downing Street, it feels as if Labour has stalled. There is consternation among shadow cabinet ministers at the party’s lethargy and what they regard as the unresponsiveness of the leadership. Even those who believe they will soon regain a consistent poll lead fear that it will erode in the heat of the short campaign.
Labour aides maintain that “the fundamentals” are unchanged. “The four-party dynamic is a much bigger problem for Cameron than us,” one tells me in reference to Ukip’s ascent. But an increasing number of MPs and activists regard this as complacent. They cite the new pamphlet by the Fabian Society’s deputy general secretary, Marcus Roberts, Revolt on the Left: Labour’s Ukip Problem and How It Can Be Overcome, as evidence that they may have as much to fear from the Farageists as the Tories do. While Ukip continues to draw between 40 and 50 per cent of its support from 2010 Conservative voters, the report notes: “This often occurs in seats where Tory majorities are large enough to absorb the defection.” Labour, it shows, holds five seats under direct threat from Ukip and 16 seats that could fall to the Conservatives if its base fragments.
Others bridle at the lack of ambition inherent in conceding that voters who should be gravitating to them are instead heading to Ukip. There is dismay among some activists at the decision not to devote greater resources to the forthcoming Rochester and Strood by-election, a seat that a stronger opposition would claim as its own.
Labour strategists are similarly sanguine about Cameron’s £7bn offer of tax cuts. They regard it as a desperate attempt to check their advantage on living standards and argue that it has endangered the Conservatives’ reputation for fiscal rectitude. However, others concur with the Labour MP Tom Watson’s view that: “[They’ll] get away with it because people believe the Tories are actually better with their money.”
After Miliband’s deficit amnesia supplied Conservative and Lib Dem ministers with an endless stream of platform jokes, some shadow cabinet ministers feel as if they have been left with the worst of both worlds: an undiminished reputation for profligacy, combined with an unremittingly austere programme. One suggests that the Tories’ embrace of Lafferian tax cuts, alongside the Lib Dems’ Keynesian enthusiasm for deficit-funded infrastructure, has “opened up new territory for us”. But it is not space that anyone expects Labour to occupy. Others question the electoral logic of a hair-shirt contest with the Conservatives. “Where is this great cadre of voters who are going to come over to us because we’ve pledged to cut child benefit?” one shadow cabinet minister despairingly asks.
If there is any consolation for Labour, it is that these bouts of angst, a recurring feature of this parliament, are often the prelude to a spectacular recovery. In July 2011, as talk of a leadership challenge swirled around Westminster, Miliband reset the agenda by declaring war on Rupert Murdoch. In September 2013, after Labour’s summer of slumber, he poleaxed the Tories by vowing to freeze energy prices.
One Labour aide tells me that while the Tories have “chucked their best pre-election material out there, we’ve kept a lot of stuff back. We’re fighting a general election campaign. We’re not fighting to save our leader’s arse at the moment.” These policies include the possibility of a significant reduction in tuition fees, a plan that was vetoed by shadow cabinet ministers on cost grounds but that could be resurrected by Miliband if the polls are too close for comfort in January. Others are demanding greater radicalism: a more generous minimum wage offer, a commitment to universal childcare, the liberation of councils to borrow to build.
Most Labour MPs believe that the maths are still on their side but what they crave is the music. The six “national goals” that Miliband announced in his speech were worthy acts of long-termism of a kind that Cameron has too often neglected. Yet they failed to rouse a party that wants to be inspired. Labour’s romantics will not be assuaged by the assertion that the Conservatives’ problems may yet be greater than their own. Few doubt Miliband can win. He now needs to convince his party that he deserves to.